Prelude – The Power of Three
Fear. Power. Love. This life-and-death (un)holy trinity was the driving force and raisons d’être of The Passage, the still largely unsung Manchester band sired in what we now call the post-punk era, and who between 1978 and 1983 released four albums and a handful of singles.
Led primarily by composer Dick Witts, The Passage bridged the divide between contemporary classical composition and electronic pop as much as between the personal and the political. In the oppositional hotbed of Margaret Thatcher’s first landslide, The Passage fused agit-prop and angst, and released a song called Troops Out as a single. The song offered unequivocal support for withdrawing British troops from Northern Ireland.
They wrote Anderton’s Hall, about Greater Manchester’s born again right wing police chief, James Anderton, and, on Dark Times, rubbed Brechtian polemic up against dancefloor hedonism. On XOYO, their most commercial and potentially most infiltrational moment, they quoted Shakespeare and used chromosomes as a chorus to make a subversively scientific and possibly prophetic gender-bending anthem.
As with the eternal triangle of their themes, The Passage recognised the emblematic power of three. This was the case both through the band’s tripartite membership when at its best, or in the colour schemes of their record sleeves, designed with uniform minimalism by Jeremy Greenwood. Black, white and red was the only palette needed, no shades of grey required. Black for anarchy, white for peace and red for communism, as well as for some of the anger of the age that fired Witts’ lyrics.
Set to carefully constructed arrangements, this stormy marriage of ‘music, texts and treatments’ as Witts’ contributions were credited, were didactically inclined electronic arias. Sometimes they formed song cycles that were mini manifestoes, with The Passage cast as avant-pop provocateurs.
Such grandstanding was only partly as earnest as it sounds. As seriously as The Passage took both themselves and the repressive forces they wrote about, the politics of dancing remained as a release from it all.
This is probably why Moby ended up sampling the frantic techno of late period Passage song, Drugface. It’s probably no coincidence too that, while Witts moved into writing and academe, second generation Passage guitarist Andy Wilson and drummer Joe McKechnie both became DJs and producers. XOYO even inspired an anything-goes electro-clash night-club that was similarly seminal.
The Beginning, The Dawn
Some of the key components of The Passage’s multi-faceted and at times portentous canon can be heard on the fortieth anniversary edition of their debut album, Pindrop, released this month on the uber-cool LTM label. As well as featuring the band’s first two EPs and a rarely heard radio sessions, the expanded 2CD edition of Pindrop also includes the third Passage album, Degenerates. Heard back to back, both records chart the polemically charged evolution of a band on a mission.
Where The Passage sit in the post-punk pantheon is hard to say. They shared bills with Joy Division and The Fall, but didn’t sound remotely like either. Musically, they weren’t as in-your-face as Crass, as scratchily abrasive as The Au Pairs or as soulful as The Redskins – all bands working in different ways in roughly the same non-aligned oppositionist garret. The Pop Group and Test Department were manning the same barricades, but both were more incendiary in intent. Nor were The Passage as musically obtuse as their forebears in the previous generation of English musical radicals, from composer Cornelius Cardew to the Henry Cow/Art Bears/Rock in Opposition axis.
In their use of electronics, The Passage weren’t outsider experimentalists a la Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire. Witts, at least, knew his classical chops, and his synthesised-brass laden compositions were closer to something Harrison Birtwistle might create for a Greek tragedy translated by Tony Harrison than the acts of confrontationalist Dada proffered by the former.
The Passage was nevertheless an articulate and (self) consciously intellectual entity. At least one review suggested they were too clever for their own good. They probably knew that as well, and nobody loves a smartarse. Perhaps only Scritti Politti and Ludus occupied similarly highbrow lyrical territory, particularly in terms of sexual politics.
Yet, four decades on, Pindrop and Degenerates sound as urgent, as demanding, as necessary and as current as ever. In the stance they took both musically and lyrically, The Passage continue to raise questions regarding the relationships between pop, protest and the political and artistic power of both. In Pindrop and Degenerates can be heard a soundtrack to a proposed cultural revolution. Steeped in theory as they might be, in their bloody-minded defiance, The Passage helped point the way for the musical agitators of today and, perhaps more importantly, of tomorrow.
The First Stage of a Necessary Measure
As detailed by LTM boss James Nice in his extensive history of the band that accompanies the Pindrop/Degenerates reissue, The Passage was formed in 1978 by Witts and Tony Friel, one of the founding members and original bass player with The Fall. The pair met at Manchester Musicians Collective, co-founded by Witts with composer Trevor Wishart, and it was an MMC night where The Fall played their first gig.
Cleethorpes-born Witts was a classically trained percussionist, who played with the Halle Orchestra and contemporary music ensemble, Dreamtiger, before being fired by punk to move into a less esoteric musical world. As The Passage, Witts and Friel fleetingly featured original Magazine keyboardist Bob Dickinson before his departure led to Lorraine Hilton joining. Outgoing Fall drummer Karl Burns had an even briefer tenure. While Witts’ social commentary sounded increasingly splenetic alongside Friel’s more straightforward contributions, it was Hilton’s reedy organ that defined the early Passage sound.
This can be heard on the two EPs by this Passage line-up, New Love Songs and About Time. Released on Manchester-based independent label, Object Music, each record hosts two thematically inclined songs apiece by Friel and Witts. Publicity for About Time, which was produced by David Cunningham of the Flying Lizards, boasted how The Passage was the only band to receive airplay on both Radio One and Radio Three.
Witts combined playing and writing with The Passage with co-presenting What’s On, Granada TV’s Thursday night arts magazine programme. Originally presented by Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson, the re-booted What’s On saw Witts one of four co-presenters, who included a young Margi Clarke, at the time known as Margox.
Witts looked after the more esoteric content, giving straight to camera monologues about local gigs and records, sometimes sporting a Rock Against Racism t-shirt. A What’s On Christmas special not only featured Margox singing a punky version of White Christmas, but also featured the TV debut of The Passage. Witts would later switch channels and join BBC North’s yoof-tastic Oxford Road Show. Manchester already had so much to answer for.
The Manchester occupied by The Passage may be the same as the Manchester conjured up in the city’s perceived late twentieth century history of the city, but it is different too. Tony Wilson and Factory Records’ messy trajectory from the original Factory club to the closure of the Hacienda may have been deservedly mythologised umpteen times over, but Witts and others did the groundwork.
In Witts’ case it was with the Manchester Musicians Collective. There was also Object, the record label run by Steve Solamar of the Spherical Objects, who were named by Paul Morley in the NME as one of the three Manchester groups who interested him the most. The Passage and fellow MMC members Joy Division were the others. Here then, was the broadest of churches, messier and less image conscious than advertised.
In 2008, Witts gave a paper at Mark E. Smith and The Fall: Art, Music and Politics, a one-day symposium that took place in Salford. Called Building up a Band: Music for a Second City, Witts’ paper told how ‘The story of The Fall helps us to understand the post-war history of Manchester where the story of Factory falls short of it.’
Witts went on to point out how ‘the stories provided by practitioners and resources such as The Fall, John Cooper Clarke, New Hormones Records, Rabid Records, Band on the Wall or the Manchester Musicians’ Collective provide much richer accounts of impacts, scenes, activities, realisations and conflicts than the monochrome frame tightly set around Factory.’
Witts might justifiably have mentioned The Passage in the same list, so embedded were they with the activities around those mentioned, Whether modesty or an academic awareness of potential conflict of interest got the better of him isn’t clear, but there was curiously no mention of Object, who were similarly in the thick of things. One suspects that is another story, some of which might be found on the Object compilation released by LTM as part of its Auteur labels series. Witts’ presentation was later published as the opening essay in a collection of contributions to the symposium.
Dancing Through Dark Times
As a portent of things to come, Witts also worked as music and dance officer for Liverpool arts funding agency, Merseyside Arts Association. Through this role, he brought choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage to Liverpool. Witts’ interest in dance continued, and, according to Witts’ biography in the book of Mark E. Smith and The Fall: Art, Music and Politics, it was he who introduced Clark to The Fall’s Mark E. Smith.
Witts fleetingly appeared in Hail the New Puritan, artist Charles Atlas’ fictionalised 1984 documentary film about Clark, which also features the then enfant terrible of the dance world performing with his company to music by The Fall. This meeting of minds would eventually culminate in the Edinburgh International Festival presentation of I Am Curious, Orange, Clark’s audacious bare-bummed ballet, which featured The Fall playing live onstage throughout.
The Passage’s affinity with dance, whether as a metaphor for sex, in a club or on a theatre stage, pulsed throughout the band’s lifespan. This stems from the dreamy Watching You Dance, which appears both on Pindrop, and, in a re-recorded version with vocalist Lizzy Johnson, as a single. Johnson also appeared on a thrilling John Peel session version of Dark Times. A new version of the song, with Witts on vocals, would go on to open the second Passage long player, For All and None.
For All and None was re-released by LTM in 2003 alongside the rest of the Passage back catalogue, and features the single versions of Troops Out and Watching You Dance as extras. The roots of the album can be heard on the six radio session extras on Pindrop. Extras on the 2003 edition of the final Passage album, Enflame, include the hitherto unreleased Song to Dance, recorded towards the end of the band’s life with a brass section and harpist. Utilising something resembling rap, Witts even went as far as name-checking long-serving Michael Clark Company member, Ellen Van Schuylenburch. A collaboration between Clark and The Passage was mooted, though the band split up before it could be developed.
Such ambitious multi-media adventures were several major leaps on from The Passage’s early days, which saw changes following Friel’s departure after an altercation with an audience member at a London show supporting Cabaret Voltaire (CV’s Live YMCA 27 10 79 album was recorded the same night). Hilton’s sister Martine was drafted in on bass, but the band was put on hiatus following Witts’ serious injury in a car crash, effectively ending that phase of The Passage for good.
Pindrop, then, is a solo Witts record in all but name, and is a very different beast to New Love Songs and About Time. This can be heard in the record’s re-recording of 16 Hours, one of Witts’ contributions to the band’s second EP. A brooding and self-lacerating hymn to unrequited obsession as a saviour from everyday tedium, the About Time version had a resigned calm to the verses before the frustration of the chorus lashed out at the listener. On Pindrop, set against a more propulsive backdrop that shortens the song by a breathless thirty seconds, Witts’ initially muffled vocal breaks into something more desperate and overwrought from the start.
As Witts explained in an interview with all three members of The Passage that appeared in Printed Noises fanzine following the release of the EP, the mannered politesse of his vocals on the EP version of 16 Hours was in part down to producer David Cunningham.
“I wasn’t too sure how to do the vocals – it was David Cunningham who really suggested it should be straight and correct. The words are spoken very clearly and slowly compared to how I do them live. I think he prefers that sound anyway, take the Flying Lizards, the whole point of that is the girl has a very correct voice and very clear – it’s quite right in the context to do that. Tony thinks it should be more resigned but it’s about hope.”
The difference can be heard too on the Pindrop track, Locust, which absorbs the lyrics of Witts’ other About Time track, Time Delay, into a biblical sounding fairytale whispered in the dark.
It was the opening track of Pindrop, however, that set the album’s tone. It also revealed The Passage’s entire political philosophy, helping shape everything they did afterwards. From the gothic rumble that ushered it in, Fear was a tense psychodrama set in an un-named oppressive regime, whose agents interrogated the song’s captive narrator and their collaborators.
In its spare, third person structure across three verses, Fear resembles a short story from One Thousand and One Nights as rewritten by Italo Calvino with a western authoritarian slant. A ferocious live version of the song, recorded in April 1981 at the Royal College of Art in London when The Passage shared a bill with This Heat, can be found on McKechnie’s website.
The second song on Pindrop, Troops Out, takes its title from the Troops Out Movement, formed in London in 1973 in response to the presence of British troops in Northern Ireland and the killing of unarmed civilians in Derry on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday the year before. By 1980, the conflict was at its height, and the Republican hunger strikes in the Maze Prison, close to Belfast, would begin that October.
The third track, Carnal, was one of Witts’ many dialogue-based analyses of sexual politics set to music. Witts seemed to be still having the same endless conversation four albums later on Enflame, when Horseplay saw him going round in ever decreasing circles, arguing the toss ad nauseam.
Hunt, which follows, unpicks the psychological and political impotence of those who indulge in bloodsports for kicks, and appears to be set to a horror film chase scene score. Anderton’s Hall has the lyrical potential for a satirical stand-up routine pastiching the sort of after-dinner speech the song’s subject might have partaken in. The merciless political lampooning of Spitting Image was a few years away yet, but such broad piss-takery was the stuff of the era’s punky alternative cabaret circuit with which The Passage occasionally collided. Witts, it seemed, could be quite the comedian.
In its line, ‘I’d turn up the sound, I’d play The Fall / But Anderton doesn’t like them at all’, Anderton’s Hall is also one of the first Passage songs to recognise the collective power of being in a room with loud music playing, and how figures like Anderton would rather they were shut down. Witts and co would later go all the way with this on Dark Times and Hip Rebels, the latter reinvented from its single version on the flip of Troops Out as A Good and Useful Life, the centrepiece of second Passage album, For All and None.
Dance culture and the right to party would later become explicitly political. This followed the UK Conservative government’s ideological assault on rave culture by introducing the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. Sections 63-67 of Part V of the Act put restrictions on gatherings of more than 20 where there were ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.’
And That’s Just the Start
The mass civil disobedience the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act inspired was a long way off from the claustrophobia of Pindrop. A nervy, murky urgency pulses the record, as if Witts had recorded it in a locked basement beneath a naked bulb with the threat of a bomb going off if it wasn’t finished before curfew. At times, Witts sounds like a hellfire preacher evangelising fire and brimstone. Given his heretical barbs against organised religion on later songs such as Clear as Crystal, there is no small irony here. At other times, he plays the drama queen, emoting as if the end of the world is nigh, or else flicking out his words with gossipy glee.
There are times too when Witts is a bitch. A Certain Way to Go is a jealous-sounding stab at the serious young men image post-punk had brought in its wake. This was seemingly personified on his doorstep by Factory Records and the label’s favourite sons, A Certain Ratio (geddit?). There is the terminal hangover too of Me-Generation self-absorption, as Witts over-analyses his relationships into submission.
Musically, Pindrop’s dense layers of analogue sci-fi synths, martial drums and thundering timpani sound like near neighbours of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the public service broadcaster’s electronic musical laboratory. The instrumental breaks on Fear or Hunt could be offcuts from the soundtrack to a John Carpenter horror flick. At other times, some of the record’s child-like electronic melodies seem to point the way for Boards of Canada. Both aspects are evident at different points in Taboodub, the instrumental version of sex-manual-inspired 1981 12” single, Taboos, that closes the Degenerates CD with an elaborate and possibly chemically enhanced video nasty flourish.
A similar musical palette to Pindrop can be heard in Radiophonic Workshop composer Peter Howell’s theme to The Shock of the New, Australian critic Robert Hughes’ extensive eight-part TV overview of contemporary art, screened in autumn and winter 1980. Pindrop was released in November that year. The same month saw a revamped four-piece Passage record their first John Peel Session. With the result first broadcast at the end of November, for those familiar with what had gone before, it was another shock of the new. One can only speculate how things might have panned out if Morrissey’s audition to become lead vocalist of The Passage had been successful.
It All Depends if You Want to Move On
The Passage’s debut Peel Session introduced McKechnie and Wilson to the fold. If their presence expanded the band’s sound, the most striking change came with new lead singer Lizzy Johnson, whose presence enabled Witts to concentrate on keyboards.
Wilson had already played – under the name ‘Gloria’ - with teenage incendiarists The Spurtz. Their song, Boyfriends or Your Money Back, appeared on Manchester Musicians Collective’s self-released compilation LP, Unzipping the Abstract. McKechnie had played with Liverpool bands Activity Minimal and Modern Eon, and came into contact with Witts after founding the Merseyside Musicians Collective, based in part on the Manchester model.
As well as Dark Times, the session featured Devils and Angels, and two songs that would end up on For All and None, albeit sans Johnson. Shave Your Head copped its lyrics in part from Dorothy Parker’s poem, Résumé, which delivered a shopping list style litany of various methods of suicide. The Shadows, which would be voiced on record by classically trained mezzo soprano, Teresa Shaw, was a slow-burning critique of architectural ivory towers.
All four Peel recordings are compiled along with two other sessions and unreleased demos on LTM’s BBC Sessions CD. Included are two otherwise unreleased Passage songs, Rod of Iron and Form and Void.
Other than a single version of Devils and Angels, backed by the new take on Watching You Dance, Johnson’s Peel Session appearance is the only document of her short time with the Passage. As brief as it was, it remains a significant contribution.
While gender is never mentioned in Watching You Dance, Johnson’s vocal introduces a female gaze to the song that gives it a different emphasis to the Pindrop version. Following Johnson’s departure, while Witts would sing-speak most songs, McKechnie and Wilson would take lead or shared vocals at various points. Given the weight of sexual politics running throughout the Passage canon, these changes seem important somehow.
For All and None
Pindrop’s nervy paranoia would continue on For All and None. The title came from Nietzsche by way of Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse. The record was released in July 1981 on The Passage’s own Night & Day imprint, backed by Virgin. Such, then, are the contradictions inherent in any old system.
As decreed on the inner sleeve of the original vinyl edition of the album in voguish lower case, ‘if art is for any collective consciousness at all, it is that of individuals united in their awareness of the universal need for liberation – regardless of their class position. nietzsche’s zarathustra dedication ‘fur alle und keinen’(for all and none) may apply to the truth of art’. As statements of intent go, this quotation from Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension (1979) was setting out its ambitious store from the off.
For All and None opens with Dark Times, which musically seemed to have echoes of Dudley Simpson’s similarly apocalyptic sounding theme for ITV’s 1970s teatime sci-fi serial, The Tomorrow People. In attitude, Dark Times draws from Bertolt Brecht’s short poem, Motto, or In the Dark Times, as translated by John Willett.
‘In the dark times
Will there be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.’
Brecht wrote Motto in 1938, having fled Germany after the Nazis came to power.
Edwin Morgan’s translation titles it When the times darken.
‘When the times darken
Will there be singing even then?
There will be singing even then.
Of how the times darken.’
In Witts’ take on things, the dark times are already upon us. The inner-city riots that lit up the UK that summer seemed to confirm such bleak sentiments. The song’s hemmed-in scenario captures the full last-gasp desperation to be found by thrill-seeking youth throwing themselves around in sweat-sodden rooms. It is in places such as these, after all, where the prospect of finding an identity and some kind of illicit salvation lingers in dark corners.
The scene laid out in Dark Times is an eerie kind of post-punk Weimar, akin to that in Kander and Ebb’s Christopher Isherwood inspired musical, Cabaret. Where Johnson might have been cast as a nouveau Sally Bowles, Witts is an acerbic Emcee, necking pills as he watches from the wings as everyone else cops off.
This idea of community through excess was later picked up in a much more triumphant way by Chumbawamba in their song, Tubthumping. The current post-lockdown proliferation of ‘illegal’ raves to sate the desires of the stir-crazy suggests others in search of that ever elusive good time might feel much the same way.
After Fear, state sponsored torture raised its ugly head even more explicitly on For All and None by way of Do the Bastinado. Bastinado is a form of corporal punishment involving foot whipping. While it can be dated as far back as eighth century China, its usage as a punishment and interrogation tool has a bloody history throughout America, Europe and the Middle East, and is still used by some countries today.
Do the Bastinado turned this idea into a menacing proto-techno protest song that imagined the results of the punishment as a deadly dance routine. Cabaret Voltaire had done something similar with Do The Mussolini (Headkick). With vocals shared between all three members of The Passage, those in Do the Bastinado resisting such a brutal line of inquiry might easily have been undercover comrades from the same faction of insurgents as those in Fear.
The last word of the song, delivered by Witts in a hurried, hide-and-seek-whisper, is Blackout. This could be the physical response of the song’s protagonist after such relentless pummelling by his captors, or it could be a final stage direction by the author scripting it.
There are more Brechtian allusions on One to One, a prelude of sorts to A Good and Useful Life. This extended two-part reworking of Hip Rebels hangs out in the same club as Dark Times, seeking sanctuary even as it forms the heart of the record, radical chic personified.
With a brighter, less muffled production than Pindrop, For All and None is an audacious exercise in anti-establishment conceptualism. As well as co-opting Brecht and Dorothy Parker and giving torture a dancebeat, the record had other targets.
Lon Don is a fiercely localised broadside against what some might these days call the metropolitan elite; Flag Night is a dictator’s unfurling of how national emblems are used as propaganda, and could have been plucked from the same agit-prop musical as Do the Bastinado; and Photo Romance is an everyday tale of sexual confusion penned as a letter to Jackie magazine’s problem page. Tangled, that follows, is a more tender meditation on action and consequence.
For All and None’s finale comes by way of The Great Refusal, an epic call to arms that takes its title from Marcuse’s 1964 volume, One-Dimensional Man. Here, Marcuse went against prevailing Marxist orthodoxies by championing an intelligentsia to promote radical thinking. Smartarsery aside, For All and None might just have been at the vanguard of all that.
After all that, Degenerates was a beatier, bouncier and at times infinitely poppier affair. It had been a busy but turbulent 1981 for The Passage, with three very different singles marking those changes. The Devils and Angels/Watching You Dance 7”, released in February, bid farewell to Johnson. In May, Hip Rebels/Troops Out saw Witts reinstalled on vocals as part of the band’s remaining trio. By November’s 12” of Taboos, however, The Passage was now a duo of Witts and Wilson.
Taboos had been recorded in August, and by October, when Degenerates was made, drummer Paul Mahoney had joined. The album was released in June 1982 on the independent Cherry Red label, and was trailed in May by XOYO. This threatened to be the band’s breakout single, and, in an echo of the Pindrop recording of 16 Hours compared to the one on About Time, was almost 30 seconds shorter than the album version.
A flexi-disc of another Degenerates track, Born Every Minute, was shared with synth duo Blancmange, and had come free with an issue of music paper, Melody Maker. XOYO would have in an even higher profile later in the year when it appeared on Cherry Red’s Pillows and Prayers compilation of the label’s roster. Retailing at a bargain price of 99p, the album sold more than 120,000 copies.
XOYO was top-and-tailed by a distorted recitation of the opening lines from Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night. In the play, the lines are spoken by a lovelorn Duke Orsino attempting to drown out his obsession with Countess Olivia with the plea of ‘If music be the food of love / Play on, give me excess of it.’ Again, the allure of the hedonistic pleasures of the dancefloor seems to beckon both band and listener. By the end of the song, empty excess has given way to the more jaded ‘Enough, no more / Tis not so sweet now as it was before.’
After that, the album doesn’t let up, with Mahoney pounding his through a relentless and fizzingly charged set of high-handed pearls of wisdom overshadowed by an over-whelming sense of foreboding. Fleck continues XOYO’s genetic inclinations with a set of hostile intimations that seem to have been decreed by those in charge of the hostages in Fear.
Witts’ voice brims with confidence over the record’s rich and busy backdrop. For all his barbs against religion on Revelation, Go to Seed and Love is As, Witts sounds for all the world like a hellfire preacher delivering litanies of sin he wallows in with messianic glee. ‘text obtained at random from song of solomon’ according to a footnote to the lyrics on Passage fan website, Dancing Through Dark Times.
Elsewhere, the music is pure melodrama, as on Armour, which bubbles behind a fetishistic noirish narrative in which fear, power and love entwine in sado-masochistic intent. Like a flashback that hints that not much has changed and there really is no way out, the menace of Time Will Tell co-opts the dark melody of Hip Rebels / A Good and Useful Life before the biblical burble of Empty Words steadfastly refuses to name the guilty.
A stand-alone single, Wave, released in October 1982, was pleasantly carnivalesque, but failed to capitalise on XOYO’s infectious sense of its own subversive intent. The two songs on the record’s flipside, however, were infinitely less polite. While Angleland was another exercise in dystopian electronic chase scenes, on the 12” only, Drugface ramped up a motorik electronic pulse with synthesised horn fanfares to go straight for the jugular. The song was typical Passage-style moral panic hysteria that saw psychoactive experiments overseen by men in white coats.
Drugface’s opening rapid-fire mantra nevertheless became the basis for Drug Fits the Face, an infinitely more chilled piece of dancefloor-friendly electro-funk. This bubblebath-friendly Balearic makeover was smoothed into shape by geeky pop-dance Midas, reformed hedonist and born-again vegan eco-warrior, Moby, who released it in 1991 under the name Barracuda. In 2016, The Passage’s original of Drugface was compiled on Close to the Noise Floor, a 4-CD box set of pioneering British electronica recorded between 1975 and 1984.
With McKechnie back in the saddle following Mahoney’s departure, Enflame’s second remarkable moment came on another B-side, this time accompanying playful trailer single, Sharp Tongue, which opened the album. As with Drugface, Brd usa ddr jfk ramped up the BPM to accompany a cut-up of spoken-word samples from 1960s American president John F. Kennedy and his German translator. This was knitted together as a demanding electro-pop collage that pre-dated Paul Hardcastle’s similarly styled anti-Vietnam chart hit, 19, by two years. ‘with Kurt Schwitters in mind’ Witts namedropped dryly in his accompanying note to the text, acknowledging the Dadaist poet’s influence.
America and Germany are all over much of Enflame, with pithy Witts-eye-views of TV evangelism in Clear as Crystal and a proto little Britainite bulldog breed in Dogstar forming a travelogue of sorts. The latter, with McKechnie on lead vocal, was written after he was refused entry to a club in Munich with the rest of the bandafter the doorman spotted he was wearing a red star badge. The Half of It: Twats is a bile-laden assault on Christian soldiers; it’s sister piece, Sissies, a furtive last-chance kiss in the dark.
By the time Enflame appeared, Witts had moved from stand-up satirist, social commentator and Emcee to now resemble a kind of rabble-rousing ringmaster. In his calling the shots, he was part Puck, part Prospero. McKechnie and Wilson were willing foils in his increasingly messianic routines, whether agitating the masses from his soapbox on @th Day, or else banging on about his complicated romantic adventures in Horseplay.
Finally, Sunburn seems to take on the entire military industrial complex and its occupying forces. Even almost forty years ago, it seems, The Passage got the gist that things weren’t going to turn out well.
Live and Dangerous
So it went too sometimes in the live arena. I saw The Passage play live twice. This was after I’d attended two shows they were advertised for, but never appeared. The first was a Campaign Against Youth Unemployment open-air concert at Walton Hall Park in Liverpool in 1979, at which McKechnie’s old band Activity Minimal did appear. The next was the following May at Mr Pickwick’s, a chicken-in-a-basket cabaret dive, again in Liverpool. The Passage was advertised as main support to The Fall, though their slot was taken by Felt.
My first eventual experience of The Passage live was at the Bluecoat Chambers, the ornate Georgian building built as a school situated in the heart of Liverpool’s city centre, which would later become the UK’s first ever arts centre. It’s more recent history includes hosting Yoko Ono’s first paid gig in 1967, an exhibition by Captain Beefheart and a 1981 appearance by William Burroughs and Brion Gyson as part of their Final Academy UK tour. In the early 1980s, Witts’ employers at Merseyside Arts Association had their offices in the Bluecoat.
Conceptualists to the last, the Passage’s Bluecoat show took place on Friday July 31st1981, two nights after the ill-fated royal wedding between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. ‘After THAT Wedding THIS celebration’ proclaimed the typed flyer above the banner, ‘HONEYMOON HOTEL’. With The Passage down to a duo of Witts and Wilson by this time, it was a night to ‘see three couples consummate their acts on stage’ according to the flyer, which bore all the hallmarks of Witts’ waggish prose style.
Such anti monarchy events were clearly a thing that week, as Leeds band Delta 5 had shown two nights earlier at Mr. Pickwick’s, when, on the day of the wedding itself, they headlined a ‘Rock Against Matrimomy’ reception of ‘music, magic and mime.’
The Passage’s Honeymoon Hotel night opened with The Glass Animals, the pairing of Liz Naylor and Cath Miles, abrasive editorial enfants terrible of Manchester scene zine, City Fun, for which Witts was an occasional contributor. In a recollection of a City Fun ‘Stuff the Superstars’ benefit gig that took place in Manchester, The Fall’s former drummer Paul Hanley magnificently described the publication as being ‘as humourless as The Passage playing a funeral, but in its defence they were humourless times.’
Hanley also had some choice words for The Glass Animals, who were followed at the Bluecoat show by nouveau cabaret duo Eddie Maelov and Sunshine Patteson, stars of Richard Strange’s Cabaret Futura club in London. The Passage later toured America with Strange as part of a Cabaret Futura package. As Strange makes clear in his memoir, Punks and Drunks and Flicks and Kicks, they didn’t get on.
On the flyer for the Bluecoat show, The Passage mythologised themselves as ‘Andrew – it’s – alright – if – you – don’t – smile – Wilson and Dick – anything - illegal – considered – Witts’. The show itself, alas, was plagued with technical problems, and, with Witts declaring one of the synthesisers “completely fucked”, their set was cut short after seven songs. “Put it down to Anderton,” Witts deadpanned before leaving the stage.
With the duo using tapes as well as live drums, for all its gremlins, the night was nevertheless an insight into the dark side of The Passage, the songs denser and more complex, if more beat-driven than ever.
My second live experience of The Passage came in October 1982, when they headlined a CND benefit show at Mr Pickwick’s, supported by The Room. The Room would eventually morph into John Peel favourites, Benny Profane, who McKechnie would join, initially as a drummer before moving to guitar. Back at Mr Pickwick’s, McKechnie had rejoined The Passage, fleshing out the sound on a set that included Fear and Dark Times. This couldn’t keep the technical gremlins at bay, alas, and another intense set was again cut short at risk of potential electrocution after the band’s instruments went “live”, according to Witts.
A photograph of The Passage’s Mr Pickwick’s show appears in Post-Punk Poets, a collection of Witts’ lyrics for The Passage published in 2017. Witts is pictured in a vest, peering down earnestly at the keyboard in front of him. Wilson stands to his left, clutching a microphone. McKechnie can be just about made out in a particularly dark corner.
Post-Punk Poets was compiled by Todd Swift and Alex Payne, a couple of fanboys whose impressionable minds had been blown by The Passage. Swift’s gushing introduction to the book is followed by one by Graham Duff, the actor and writer who penned drug-dealing sit-com, Ideal, starring Johnny Vegas, and who has been friends with Witts for more than 30 years.
Post-Punk Poets is a handsome volume, but is far from The Passage’s complete works. With the book’s contents arranged neither alphabetically or genealogically, lyrics to just five songs from Pindrop’s original thirteen - Fear, Carnal, Watching You Dance, 2711 and Locust – appear. There is no Anderton’s Hall, A Certain Way to Go or Troops Out, just as there is no Photo Romance, Lon Don, Do the Bastinado or Flag Night from For All and None. Neither does The Great Refusal make an appearance in the book.
By contrast, only two of the ten songs from Degenerates - Revelation and Time Will Tell – are missing. Similarly, with Enflame, only the two parts of The Half of It don’t make the cut. While none of the early EP tracks are in the book other than 16 Hours and Locust’s absorption of Time Delay, lyrics to stand-alone singles Devils and Angels, Taboos and Wave appear, as do B-sides Animal in Me and Angleland. There are other texts too from unreleased or session only songs, including Form and Void and Tattoo, as well as Kickback, a song only ever recorded in rough demo form.
No explanation for the absence of the missing songs is given, though given that all the missing lyrics are freely available online in Passage fan site, Dancing Through Dark Times, they are curious omissions. Was Witts being coy about his past? Was he embarrassed by some of the hardline specifics of Anderton’s Hall and Troops Out? Was he editing out the flaws of his youthful fervour, like a dirty secret hidden out ofview? Whatever the reasons, it is perhaps telling that, out of the 39 sets of lyrics collected, while some of The Passage’s fear and power based songs may be missing, pretty much all of the love and sex lyrics have survived intact.
Whatever the choices made, Post-Punk Poets remains an essential primer to the Passage’s lyrical output. At the back of the book, Witts has the last word, and it isn’t an empty one.
And There’ll Be No Rest
Just as The Passage are hard to pin down in terms of where they fit in what is now rightly or wrongly viewed as a historical canon, their legacy is an equally slippery beast. What each member did next separately is telling, not just of individual ambitions, but of how culture – popular or otherwise - trickles outwards on ever shifting sands.
Original Passage member Tony Friel formed Contact with Duncan Prestbury of Spherical Objects, and released an EP on Object Music. Friel later played with Karl Burns and Buzzcocks bassist Steve Garvey in The Teardrops, and more recently with the Woodgate Street Band.
While nothing is known of Lorraine Hilton following her departure from The Passage, her early contribution to the band remains vital. As does that by Johnson, who sang briefly with Liverpool duo, Freeze Frame, and in 2019 could be heard on Hot House, an environmentally aware protest song, put out on a YouTube video by a group called The Reckoning.
Teresa Shaw, who sang on the For All and none version of The Shadows, worked on many contemporary music projects and with major opera companies
Joe McKechnie went on to play with Benny Profane, Echo and The Bunnymen, with original Fall guitarist Martin Bramah in Blue Orchids and Factory Star, and with Vic Godard’s Subway Sect. As The Mindwinder, he released Bang the Fucking Box 12” on Ochre Records, for whom he compiled the tripped-out Coming Round at Calums ambient dub compilation. McKechnie now records as Shimmer Twin and Drifting.
Andy Wilson went on to DJ in Ibiza, where he still records and broadcasts.
Dick Witts went on to become arts officer with Camden Festival, then director of South Hill Park arts centre in Berkshire. Remodelling himself as Richard Witts, he wrote a biography of former Velvet Underground chanteuse, Nico. Witts later wrote Artist Unknown, a surprisingly entertaining history of what is now Arts Council England.
Prior to Post-Punk Poets, his third book was a study of Nico’s old band, The Velvet Underground. Inbetween, his academic career saw him take up a post in musicology at the University of Edinburgh, and, since 2013, at Edge Hill University in Merseyside.
In his biography for Artist Unknown, Witts states how ‘He has whiled away many frustrating hours on committees and panels at the Arts Council, and remembers writing two policy reports. He wonders what became of them.’ These two sentences capture the full absurdity of the UK’s arts funding system, and the increasingly ideological bureaucracy that drives it.
Music Plays for a False World
Pindrop and Degenerates – For All and None and Enflame too - are remarkable documents of their times. In all their acerbic, dialectical glory, all four albums sound moulded out of theory and rhetoric, of pamphleteering, and endless late night discussions in old men’s boozers, committee rooms and ice-cold Victorian flats lined with books and records. They are records steeped in the politics of protest and pleasure at a time when the relationship between activism and art was at a polemical premium.
With this in mind, the fortieth anniversary edition of Pindrop also raises the question of who and where The Passage of today might be? In the current climate, where a right wing Westminster government is stripping away freedoms including the teaching of ‘left wing’ material in school, while the right to protest may yet be criminalised, the dystopian interrogations of Fear looks more real by the day.
In a world where Covid-19 has closed down the clubs in a way even the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act couldn’t manage, beyond the old-skool illegal raves that are all the rage once more, the silence of Anderton’s Hall is deafening. Just as The Passage left behind a posthumous soundtrack to the dark times of their day, once this is all over, dancing our way through the ones we’re living in right now might be the only option left.
The 2CD edition of Pindrop and Degenerates by The Passage is available at www.ltmrecordings.com.
A bibliography of The Passage can be found at the Dancing Through Dark Times website at www.thepassage.co.uk.
Post-Punk poets by Dick Witts is published by Eyewear. www.eyewearpublishing.com
Details of Richard Witts’ other work can be found at www.richardwitts.com
Hot House by The Reckoning is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S13oXR4bPd0
Other sources for this essay include: -
Printed Noises issue 3 (1979)
Mark E. Smith and The Fall: Art, Music and Politics (Ashgate 2010)
Richard Strange - Punks and Drunks and Flicks and Kicks (Andre Deutsch 2002)
With special thanks to Joe McKechnie.
Bella Caledonia, October 2020